When you have questions, the Library of Parliament’s research librarians can help you find answers. As a part of the Library’s Parliamentary Information and Research Service (PIRS), some of these research librarians are embedded in its multidisciplinary sections while others are based in the Library’s five branches. In this article, the authors trace the emergence of research librarians back to the early days of widespread Internet use, explain how their role has evolved, and offer examples of how they collaborate with the library’s analysts to provide information products and training. They conclude by noting this organizational structure provides librarians with opportunities to develop expertise in a given subject area and provides analysts with the support they need to serve individual parliamentarians and parliamentary committees and associations.
Michael Dewing and Meghan Laidlaw
Research Librarians: Who They Are and What They Do
Many people are familiar with the Library of Parliament’s iconic building on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, which until the Centre Block closed for renovations in early 2019, housed a collection of some 600,000 items and served as the Library’s main branch.
However, people tend to know much less about the Library’s research role. During 2017-2018, in addition to responding to some 11,900 information and reference requests, library staff answered 5,600 research and analysis requests for parliamentary committees, associations and individual parliamentarians. The responses to these requests range from concise emails to substantial background papers and draft reports for parliamentary committees and associations.
These responses for research and analysis are provided by the staff of the Library’s Parliamentary Information and Research Service (PIRS), of which research librarians are an integral part. Indeed, 15 of the Library’s roughly 30 research librarians are embedded in PIRS’s multidisciplinary sections. The rest are based in the Library’s five branches, which are located in several buildings in the Parliamentary Precinct.
PIRS has two research divisions, each made up of six sections. These sections deal with subject matters that are aligned with the mandates of parliamentary committees. Examples of sections include the Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs Section; the Resources, Energy and Transport Section and the Economic, Fiscal and Monetary Policy Section.
Each section is made up of between six and ten analysts (economists, lawyers, social scientists and scientists who are subject matter experts), research assistants, interns and embedded research librarians. The research librarians have an undergraduate degree plus a master’s degree in Library Science or Library and Information Science.
The embedded research librarians respond directly to reference questions from parliamentary clients and support the activities of the analysts and research assistants. They also develop their own subject-matter expertise, which relates to the subject areas of their section.
For instance, research librarians embedded in the Gender, Health and Social Affairs Section develop expertise on healthcare, labour, employment, income security, disability issues, and social policies. They may be called upon to respond to requests on related topics, such as medical treatments or diseases, aging and seniors, homelessness, gender-responsive budgeting, unemployment, the taxation of charities, or the medical or social implications of cannabis use.
Integration into Multidisciplinary Teams
PIRS’s multidisciplinary sections were created in the early 2000s, when people began turning to the Internet to find the information they needed.
At that time, service delivery at the Library was divided into two branches. Librarians were part of the Information and Documentation Branch, which, as its name implies, provided information, documentation and reference services to parliamentarians and other clients, such as the Parliamentary Press Gallery.
Analysts were part of the Parliamentary Research Branch, which provided research, analysis and information to parliamentarians, as well as parliamentary committees and associations. The Parliamentary Research Branch was set up on professional lines, with four divisions made up of social scientists, lawyers, economists and scientists respectively.
The adoption of the Internet allowed the Library’s parliamentary clients to find basic information easily. This shifted their need for the Library’s services to more lengthy and complex analysis and research that was not easily found online. Meanwhile, Library management expected that parliamentary committees would need increased research and analysis.
Given these trends, in 2002-2003 the Library tested a new multi-disciplinary approach combining analysts and research librarians with a view to implementing it more widely. To quote the Report on Plans and Priorities for 2002-2003, the creation of multidisciplinary teams would:
Increase the quality, comprehensiveness and speed of service offered to parliamentarians;
Improve corporate memory for parliamentary committees and associations;
Increase the synergy between research and library professionals; and
Facilitate the transfer of knowledge and expertise from senior personnel to new employees.
Following the initial test period, in 2004-2005, the librarians of the Information and Documentation Branch were integrated with the analysts of the Parliamentary Research Branch to create PIRS. The structure based on professions was replaced with one based on subject matters in which analysts from various professional disciplines and research librarians are integrated.
At the same time, a “one-stop shop” was introduced to allow parliamentary clients to access all Library services through a central unit.
In 2010-2011, the Library implemented an electronic document and records management system. It is used to track and deliver responses to parliamentary requests.
Evolution of the Teams
Initially, the embedded research librarians reported to the manager of the section to which they were assigned. This created some challenges, however, as the librarians and analysts fall under separate collective agreements and have different training needs and career paths.
Therefore, in 2017 the embedded research librarians were organized into a distinct team— the Integrated References Services team—with its own manager within the Reference, Current Awareness and User Services (RCU) Division. This allowed for better coordination, as well as for the provision of appropriate training and career development.
The RCU Division is responsible for, among other things, the coordination of reference and information requests. It also contributes to the training of new analysts and librarians on the use of the Library’s databases, catalogues and other information resources.
How Does the System Work?
The kinds of requests the Library receives from parliamentary clients vary enormously. Research technicians respond to requests to borrow or access specific Library materials, such as sessional papers, academic articles, legislative summaries and news media articles. They also answer many of the research requests for parliamentary documents.
Research librarians respond to reference requests from parliamentary clients on a wide variety of topics. They often provide curated lists of resources and annotated bibliographies. They also perform customized information searches. Members of Parliament and their constituency staff frequently request background information to assist individual constituents, and the research librarians at the Library respond to these requests.
When individual parliamentarians or parliamentary committees require in-depth analysis or when very specific expertise is required, PIRS’s analysts provide responses ranging from a quick telephone call to a customized research paper to an inperson briefing.
RCU senior research librarians are responsible for the triage of requests received from parliamentarians and their staff. The requests are distributed to the research divisions based on the topic and other aspects of the request. For example, a question about abandoned ships might go to a research librarian with expertise on transport or marine law.
While the embedded research librarians are organized into a distinct team, research librarians and analysts in each section develop close working relationships and tend to work in an organic and informal manner.
Analysts are often called upon to respond to requests within short and sometimes competing deadlines. They will often request help from a research librarian when they are pressed for time or when they want to ensure that they have not missed key resources. A research librarian can prepare a tailored list of resources to give the analyst a starting point for their research. Analysts can work more efficiently and spend more time on analysis and writing by asking the research librarian to gather the initial information.
Some requests are generated internally, often beginning with an analyst visiting the research librarian in their section to outline what kind of information or resources they need to respond to a parliamentarian, to prepare a committee briefing note or to write a publication.
It is common for the research librarian to send relevant information by email. Depending on the request, a dynamic back-and-forth can take place and the request can evolve. As the research progresses, the analyst may request specific resources on certain aspects of the request. This is in no way a one-sided exchange—librarians working on requests from parliamentarians will often consult with analysts.
Examples of Collaboration
The ways in which analysts and research librarians collaborate include producing compilations of information resources, undertaking long-term projects and conducting training. The following examples are representative of the kind of work analysts and research librarians regularly do together.
An analyst reached out to the research librarian embedded in their section. The analyst was looking for assistance to compile a list of studies and reports related to climate change that had been published by officers of Parliament and parliamentary committees. The analyst required this information for a research paper. During the initial discussion, the analyst was able to clarify and specify their information needs and outline the response they were hoping to get.
The research librarian compiled the list of relevant resources and sent it directly to the analyst. The analyst shared the compilation with other analysts and section managers for whom they thought it would be relevant. The compilation was useful as a discovery tool, and at least one analyst found a relevant publication that they did not know existed. Given its usefulness, the document was translated and properly formatted so that it could be shared more widely within the Library.
Analysts and research librarians with similar subject-matter expertise often collaborate on long-term projects. In one case, an analyst and a research librarian collaborated on a complex project on legal and political aspects of certain human rights issues.
Initially, the research librarian was approached by an analyst in their section. The analyst explained that a parliamentarian had expressed interest in a multifaceted project on the topic, which was to include research papers, an annotated bibliography of sources, training for the parliamentarian’s staff on media monitoring related to the issue, and ultimately, a Library of Parliament seminar or presentation.
The analyst and the research librarian worked together to parse the request. The librarian took charge of the annotated bibliography and the media monitoring training, while the analyst and an analyst in another section tackled writing publications on law and policy respectively.
The research librarian and the analysts involved with the project met with the parliamentarian and their staff to discuss their specific information needs and interests. At this meeting, the librarian presented information on how to use Library resources for customized media monitoring to keep abreast of developments on the topic.
The drafting of an annotated bibliography and publications required ongoing communication between the analysts and the research librarian to ensure consistency in terms of the organization of information in their respective documents. As well, the team was actively involved in peer-reviewing each other’s work and providing suggestions and feedback.
The research librarian also searched for parliamentary information and case law to illustrate certain ideas explored in the analysts’ research papers. The annotated bibliography was packaged together with the analysts’ research papers and presented in such a way that the package could be more widely distributed.
Finally, the presentation portion of the project involved preparing a Library of Parliament seminar for all interested parliamentarians and their staff. The research librarian contributed to the design and the delivery of information for the seminar.
In addition to training new employees and providing ad hoc training on specific databases, senior research librarians periodically offer training sessions on topics like legal research at the Library of Parliament.
One of these training sessions is offered to analysts who are members of provincial bar associations. It includes overviews of both recent developments in legal research in Canada using publicly available tools, such as the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) database, as well as key databases available through subscription at the Library. The session is intended to ensure that analysts are aware of all the legal resources that are available to them and are comfortable using these resources. A parallel training session is offered to librarians and research technicians as an introduction to legal research.
Other training sessions are devoted to legislation, regulations and case law. These sessions provide the base upon which research librarians can build their legal research expertise to respond to their own client requests and to support the work of the analysts in their section.
Continuing to Evolve
As with all knowledge institutions, the Library of Parliament must adapt to a rapidly changing environment. With each Senate appointment and each election to the House of Commons, new parliamentarians and parliamentary staff arrive on the scene. They bring their experiences in business, academia or public service. While they are generally able to find basic information on their own, they often turn to the Library with more complex requests.
To adapt to this ever-changing environment, the Library of Parliament is evolving as well.
In the 2017-2018 Annual Report, the Library of Parliament identified four areas in which it would focus its efforts—gender-based analysis, international affairs, committee-related communications and visual elements. This requires research librarians and analysts to learn new skills in order to provide the kinds of services that are increasingly in demand by parliamentarians.
By way of example, the Library has developed the capacity to create geographic information system (GIS) maps. Indeed, during 2017–2018, the GIS team, which includes analysts and a librarian, produced 239 maps for parliamentary clients.
To help new parliamentarians learn how best to make use of the Library services, the Library has instituted an ambassador program. Through this program, library employees visit new parliamentarians’ offices to let them and their staff know how the Library can provide them with information and research to help the parliamentarian fulfil their various roles.
At the same time, the Library is working to improve its feedback mechanisms, with a view to ensuring that comments—both positive and negative—are recorded and acted upon.
Training also plays a big role. As already mentioned, research librarians regularly share information and research strategies through in-house training sessions. The Library also provides its staff withprofessional training on matters such as gender-based analysis, plain writing and statistics.
In the 15 years since research librarians were integrated into multidisciplinary sections within PIRS, the approach has proved adaptable and beneficial to librarians, analysts and the Library’s parliamentary clients.
The organizational structure provides librarians with opportunities to develop expertise in a given subject area and provides analysts with the support they need to serve individual parliamentarians and parliamentary committees and associations. The structure also provides the Library of Parliament with the ability to innovate, while at the same time responding to feedback from parliamentary clients.
While the Library of Parliament’s main building will remain closed for a decade, its research librarians will continue work with colleagues to ensure that parliamentarians have the information and research they need.